Did you miss us in Vienna? Here’s the first of our two interviews from the Refresh meetup last month: Jörn Aldag, CEO of Hookipa, talked to us about the importance of a sound financial strategy and where cancer vaccines are on the hype curve.
Jörn Aldag has had quite a career. His first position as CEO began in 1997, when he took the helm of Evotec, then a services-focused company based in Hamburg; in 2009, he took over the CEO spot at uniQure, the Dutch company known for receiving the first Western approval of a gene therapy; and now he is at Hookipa, which is working on vaccines for cancer and infectious diseases in Vienna. “I take a lot of fun in developing platform technology companies,” he said, explaining that the common thread is that “the companies share the great science and people.”
I got to pick his brain about the importance of financial strategy to complement great science, the progress of cancer vaccines, and other major developments in the field at our last Refresh meetup in Vienna in January. To start, what was the most significant lesson he has learned along the way?
“The biggest event that I experienced was the approval of Glybera,” the gene therapy from uniQure that was the first of its kind to be approved in the West. “The biggest lesson is that even if you have the largest European agency in front of you, don’t accept no for an answer.”
But to get that far, Aldag emphasized how you need to have more than just great science to get a company to succeed. “My experience is that if you don’t have enough money, you can have great science but you’re trapped. Very often, companies don’t have enough water under the keel to actually get to their milestones, then it gets very difficult to fund and then it gets into a downward spiral,” he remarked.
“Having great science always needs to be accompanied by strong financial management that at least helps you to get to your next value inflection point. I would say take as much money as you can because the money is going to go away anyway, and you will need it.” He later added, “As you get more money, you get more ambitious, so it goes away quite quickly.”
Hookipa just raised an impressive €50M — as a result, he says, “I sleep quite well at night” — that will largely be devoted to the proof-of-concept Phase II study of the company’s vaccine for cytomegalovirus in solid organ transplants and another Phase I study in HPV-positive head and neck cancer. With these big plans, Aldag says that such a large sum was necessary: “Had we not taken out all that money, we would have run the risk of not reaching those milestones and then getting stuck.”
But what about the naysayers who might see cancer vaccines as permanently stuck? Aldag thinks that “those people are a bit behind the times…we’ve seen a pattern with other therapies — we’ve seen it with gene therapies and antibodies — that people get excited when they see the potential of something…then suddenly realize that implementing this stuff is actually pretty difficult, and you come back down such that the valuations and publications are almost negligible…and at some point in time, people go to the effort to show that it works and then you have rapid exponential growth. Vaccines are at this point because we’ve shown that it works — in people with cancer and infectious diseases.”
So what’s next for Hookipa? The next step for the company is to exploit its technology platform to produce modulatory vectors that can be used with different antigens to reduce time to market and regulatory efforts. The ten-year plan is even bigger: “If you look around the industry, the really successful biotechs all have one thing in common: They’re all driving their own products to market,” and he hopes to reach this goal that it hopes to reach in 2025.
But that’s not all he told us about: watch the video for the rest!